Monday, October 04, 2004


Recently, two Assyrian brothers Khalid and Hani Boulos were murdered as they were going about their daily business in Mosul, North Iraq. Their crime? They, like a multitude of other murdered Assyrians, among them children, were Orthodox Christians. Since 1 August 2004, five churches have been deliberately bombed in the region and a terrorized Christian population is fleeing amid repeated exhortations pronounced by imams over loudspeakers in the mosques of North Iraq that if they do not leave, they will be destroyed.
This of course, to anyone who is aware of the geo-politics of the Middle East, comes as no surprise. For a thousand years, the native Christian population of the Middle East has been used as both as a pawn and a scapegoat by its Muslim overlords, in their dealings with the West. A Muslim reaction towards the Assyrian Christians in Iraq for example, where Christians are deliberately targeted for murder and words such as 'traitors' and 'American scum' are scrawled over the ruins of churches is precisely what was predicted by those who actually knew something of Iraq, that one of the outcomes of any western attack on the region, would be that the native Assyrians, as Christians, would be associated with the aggressors, simply because of their ostensible commonality of faith, and as a result would be extirpated.
Sadly, this phenomenon is not confined within the eternally seething cauldron of the Middle East. Indeed the invasion of Iraq really has not made the world safe against terrorism. What it has done though, is not only violate international law and make the United Nations as ineffectual as its predecessor, but also to fan the flames of religious hatred throughout the globe. As a direct result of the invasion, communities that have enjoyed remarkable conditions of religious harmony are now finding themselves plunged into the ugly throes of religious strife, while in Beslan, age-old hostilities blaze with a flame more burning than before.
A case in point is Albania. An old Albanian proverb runs thus: "Ku eshte spatha este feja," meaning that the faith is wherever the sword lies, ie. you believe whatever you are compelled or it suits you to believe. Albania, despite its turbulent history, has at least for the last ninety years, displayed a remarkable degree of religious harmony for a Blakn State. The famous slogan: "Don't see to the churches or the mosques, the religion of the Albanian is Albanianism!" is indicative of the fact that for Albanians, religion has been of marginal importance in constructing their identity, the overriding factor being their perceived ethnicity. In a country where religion was banned for 50 years and is now 60% Muslim, 10% Catholic and 30% Orthodox, this would seem the sensible option and for the most part, all religions have co-existed in peace and have displayed a remarkable sense of co-operation, as is evidenced by the Orthodox Church's assistance of Muslim Kosovar refugees and provision of medical care to all Albanians, regardless of faith.
Nevertheless, there have been teething problems. The Orthodox Church in Albania has traditionally been associated with Greece and the Greek identity. Indeed, when arguing at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that Northern Epirus should be returned to Greece, Venizelos and his team based his statistics on the religious affiliations of the region. The equation, generally agreed upon by both Albanians and Greeks and not without some historical accuracy is: Orthodox = Greek. The attempts of the renegade Greek priest Theofanis Mavromatis who assumed an Albanian identity and as Fan Noli, founded the 'Albanian' Orthodox Church in order to create an Albanian identity to encompass all Albanian speakers regardless of faith, did serve to create a climate of tolerance and nip religious strife in the bud (as long as Orthodox Albanian speakers did not try to assert a Greek identity.)
The relative fragility of this status quo is evidenced by the continuous hindrances put in place by the Albanian government to the accession of His Beatitude, Archbishop Anastasios as head of the Autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church. His choice of bishops was vetoed on the grounds that some were Greek and a consistent legislative campaign designed to harry the Church and restrict it from obtaining lands wrongly appropriated from it by the Communist regime. All this is usual. However, lately, things have taken a decidedly nasty turn.
A few weeks ago, a small Orthodox, Albanian-speaking community in a village of Tzara near the city of Agioi Saranda was eyeing the almost completed bell-tower of its church, St Dimitrios. It was a particularly ingenious bell-tower, 15 metres tall, built in the shape of a cross, a prominent landmark in a small village. In the middle of the night a terrific explosion was heard and the villages rushed to the church only to see a vast gaping whole in the middle of the belltower/cross. Someone had trying, but failed, to blow it up.
No one has been arrested in connection with the crime, the rumourfile has it that its perpetrator is the overseer of a nearby ancient Greek archaeological site, Bouthrotum. This particular gentleman, a Muslim Albanian by the name of Uron Tare has a brother in the Albanian national soccer team and decided to mark, not only the victory of the Albanian national team over the Greek one, but also the racist riots in Greece by 'teaching the Christian Greek traitors a lesson." The priest of the church ever since has been receiving anonymous letters to the effect that if he should dare to repair the dame to the bell-tower, his family will be forfeit.
As in Iraq, so too in Albania, a small and defenseless indigenous minority, a minority which the Albanian government has tried for the past ninety years to incorporate into its national myth, is becoming a scapegoat, answerable for the actions of its co-religionists. The entire structure on which secular Albania seems to be crashing down, especially in the light of the unprecedented numbers of mosques being erected in traditionally Christian areas with funds provided from the Middle East.
With rumours abounding of an Al Qaeda presence in Albania since 1997, let us hope that the government of Albania will take steps to hinder further unjustified religious tension. Let us hope too that the perpetrators of the invasion of Iraq come clean and do that which they claim they set out to do: create a tolerant and permissive society. If they cannot, which seems evermore so to be the case, they should make good the damage they have done, protect the vulnerable minorities, and quit, before we are compelled to relive the Crusades again and again and again.

published in NKEE on 4 October 2004